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Aiming towards a truly Asian Church

Ultimate goal is a church committed to the peoples of the region and their struggle

  • Fr Desmond de Souza CSsR, Goa
  • India
  • October 20, 2011
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Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, was a professor of Church history.

Elected Pope in 1958, his sense of history indicated a shadowy, new world straining for unity after two catastrophic World Wars within the first half of the 20th century.

His inspiration to call the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was to witness to the world just such an event, a living sign of Christ’s last prayer, “That they may be one…that the world may believe that you have sent me.”(John 17:21)

In his opening address to the Council, Pope John XXIII said, “As regards the initiative for this great event which gathers us here, it will suffice to repeat as historical documentation, our personal account of the first sudden welling up in our heart and lips of the simple words ‘Ecumenical Council’….” It was completely unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light shedding sweetness in eyes and hearts. And, at the same time, it gave rise to a great fervor throughout the world in expectation of the holding of the Council.

His words also reflected hope for renewal of the Church. “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.…The Council now begins in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light. It is now only dawn, and already at this first announcement of the rising day, how much sweetness fills our heart.”
Rekindling the spirit of Vatican II
In 1966, Father Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), an expert during Vatican II, was appointed professor of dogmatic theology at the prestigious German University of Tubingen. He was appalled at the prevalence of Marxism among his theology students.

During the student revolt that swept Europe, particularly from France, in 1968, one incident in Tubingen particularly upset him. Student protesters disrupted one of his lectures.

In his own words, this incident alarmed him to the fact that religion was being subordinated to “a tyrannical, brutal and cruel” political ideology. “That experience,” he later wrote, “made it clear to me that the abuse of faith had to be resisted precisely.”

Recently, one “Vatican II generation” priest expressed frustration that much of the Council seemed lost. The Pope responded, “We had great hopes, but in reality things showed themselves to be very difficult,” recalling the great “enthusiasm” that he himself felt during Vatican II.

Pope Benedict gave his own reading of what went awry in the implementation of Vatican II, saying it was impeded by two interruptions. The first was in 1968 with the “great crisis of western culture.” The other was in 1989 with the collapse of Communism and the subsequent “plunge into nihilism.”

He then indicated three responses within the Church to the events of 1968 in particular.

One group “identified this new Marxist cultural revolution with the will of the Council” and claimed that “behind the written words [of the documents] was this spirit.” Another group became “absolutely against the Council.”

The third group with which he evidently identified himself began doing “timid and humble research to bring forth the true spirit” of Vatican II. It was time, he observed, to “rediscover the great heritage of the Council, which is not a made-up spirit behind the texts, but is rather the great conciliar texts themselves, re-read today,” in the light of experience.
Towards a genuine Asian Church
The second meeting of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, known as CELAM, at Medellin in Columbia in 1968 is considered the occasion when the Latin American Church articulated its specific identity.

Similarly for Asia, it was the seventh Plenary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences at Sampran, Thailand in 2000 that articulated its own specific identity as an Asian Church, not just a European Church in Asia.

The official theme that Pope John Paul II personally chose for the Asian Synod (1998) was “Jesus Christ the Savior and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia.”

Significantly, the FABC Plenary Assembly consciously chose a different theme but in continuity with the Synod, entitled “A Renewed Church in Asia: A Mission of Love and Service.” There is no reference to Jesus Christ the Savior!

Many Asian Church leaders felt that proclaiming the uniqueness of Christ is relevant for Europe, where the Church has lost out against the seductive challenges of agnosticism, secularism, atheism, indifference and post-modernism.

But in Asia, Pope John Paul II’s apprehension that pluralism will lead to relativism may be unfounded. In fact, the Asian Church leaders apprehend the rich diversity of religions, the pluralism of cultures and the diversity of the peoples in Asia, as part of God’s creative genius and integral to God’s plan of salvation.

For the FABC, the starting point therefore was life in Asia, in solidarity with Asian peoples with their diversity of religions and cultures, walking together with them and addressing their existential questions.

Issues such as evangelization, inculturation, dialogue, the Asianness of the Church, justice and options for the poor “are not separate topics to be discussed, but aspects of an integrated approach to our Mission of Love and Service.” (FABC VII n.8)

Instead of Pope John Paul II’s “New Evangelization,” the FABC used a new concept, “active, integral evangelization,” which describes an approach to mission that integrates commitment and service to life, life witness, dialogue and building up the Kingdom of God (FABC VII Plenary 2000 n.3).

The pope seemed to see the Asian cultural and philosophical traditions merely as pedagogical tools to proclaim the Gospel.

The FABC insisted that the Asian local Churches must immerse themselves in and embrace these cultural and philosophical elements to become truly Asian, in harmony and solidarity with Asians and their life realities as part of God’s plan of salvation history (Plenary 2000 n.9).

In contrast to the pope’s emphasis on proclamation, the FABC continued to emphasize dialogue, more specifically a threefold dialogue, with the living realities of plurality of cultures, multiplicity of religions and brutality of poverty (FABC Plenary I, 1974).

Pope John Paul II’s prayer that in the third millennium, “a great harvest of faith will be reaped,” (Introduction to Church in Asia,1999, N.9) made it obvious that he favored a quantitative yardstick in assessing the success of the Church in Asia.

By contrast the FABC expressed its preference for a qualitative approach to the task of Christian mission. It maintained that the fruits of mission belong to the Spirit, who moves and inspires human hearts and entire communities.

Rather than focus on individuals as the objects of mission and risk being accused of proselytizing in the religiously surcharged atmosphere of many Asian countries, the FABC chose to focus on the subjects of mission, namely, local Church and its members (FABC VII, n.7).

In the final analysis, the “Asian” vision of the FABC does not neglect proclamation, but also values friendship and trust, relationship-building dialogue, as well as solidarity and harmony, as constitutive elements of Christian mission in Asia.

It emphasizes that dialogue should be integrated with other endeavors that seek to transform oppressive and sinful structures. It proposes an integrated mission strategy, which in addition to “immersion” of the Gospel and local Churches in the Asian realities, is committed to service and life in solidarity with the Asian peoples.

The ultimate goal is a genuine Asian Church, truly committed to solidarity with the Asian peoples, in the daily realities of their life experiences and their struggles.

Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza was the former secretary of FABC’s Office of Evangelization. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia during 1980-2000. He is now based in Goa, western India
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